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Scours is common, but it’s not normal

Stephen Hayes Published on 24 August 2015

water-based joint

Is it normal for a calf to scour between 7 and 14 days old? The answer is no, and the fact people think this indicates calf scours are pretty common. DCHA has published that up to 25 percent of calves scouring meets their Gold Standards.



How did we get to the point where we think 25 percent of our calves having scours is worth celebrating?

Let’s start at the beginning. The newborn calf’s digestive and immune system is designed to be in a low-pathogen-load environment (pasture) and consuming mother’s milk (easily digested and high nutrients) when it is hungry or thirsty.

In this environment, there are few challenges the calf must face. This gives the calf’s digestive and immune system a chance to further develop and mature before alternative feeds (grains and forages) are introduced and pathogens become more common.

Once we understand how the calf was designed (good nutrition with low pathogen load), it makes the discussion on managing calf scours much easier.


It is important the calf be fed all milk proteins and a level of energy and nutrients to support growth and immune system development. Be sure you are feeding a diet close to what a cow would provide to maximize nutrient intakes and minimize digestive upset. This article will not address the details of nutrition other than to refer to cow’s milk as the ideal nutrition, and feeding as close to this as possible is best in the young calf.



Maximize immunity to the young calf. This is best done by feeding 3 to 4 quarts of high-quality maternal colostrum that contains at least 50 grams per liter of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and low bacteria counts (less than 100,000 cfu per ml) within two hours of birth.

If this is done correctly, more than 90 percent of calves should have a serum protein level of 5 mg per dl or higher. This will indicate passive transfer has occurred. If adequate maternal colostrum is not available, then use a commercial colostrum replacer or a colostrum supplement to make sure the blood values on the 24-hour-old calf exceed the 5-mg-per- dl level.

When discussing colostrum, it is important to have the dry cows fully vaccinated for calf scour pathogens such as rotavirus and coronavirus. These vaccines will spike antibody levels in the colostrum and help the calf to fight off scours after passive transfer occurs. Remember that vaccinating the cow is spiking the colostrum antibody levels, so the vaccine is only effective for the calf if the colostrum program leads to successful passive transfer.

It is also possible to vaccinate the newborn calf, but I have found the use of disease-targeted colostrum supplements and a good cow vaccination program to be more effective than vaccinating a newborn calf.

Pathogen load

Just as important as having a functional immune system is minimizing the pathogen load exposure to the young calf. This is best done with good cleaning and biosecure protocols. The quickest way to monitor this is to pull a sample of milk or colostrum just before it goes in the calf’s mouth. Pull the sample from the end of the nipple or pail or tube feeder as it would go into the calf’s mouth.

When pulling milk or colostrum samples, be sure to keep the samples chilled as soon as they are collected and submit them to the lab the same day they are collected. The other caution is to make sure any milk or colostrum sampled is free of either antibiotics or additives such as a direct-fed microbial. Either of these may alter the true count of the sample.


Benchmarks for samples collected are:

  • Colostrum less than 100,000 cfu per ml
  • Pasteurized milk or milk replacer less than 20,000 cfu per ml

My experience is that if you are doing a good job of cleaning, you should be at half of these levels or less.

Other areas to focus on when it comes to pathogen reduction would be maternity pen cleanliness, any transport carts or vehicles, pens or hutches, pails and fences. The mouth and tongue are very active in the young calf, as they are constantly looking for something to suck on. Keep all surfaces clean to keep pathogen load low.

Are you a calf feederor a milk processor?

If you want to manage calf scours, stop thinking like a calf feeder and start thinking like a milk processor. Is your facility and equipment capable of really being cleaned? Do you have milk-based fittings or are you using fittings designed for water?

milk-designed joint

Would a milk inspector approve of your plumbing and equipment for handling milk? Milk is very prone to causing a biofilm and requires much different cleaning protocols to water, so using a water plumbing system to handle milk flow is destined to have a problem. Is it expensive to fix? Are scouring calves expensive?

If calves are scouringunder 5 days old

If a calf is scouring at less than 5 days old, there is a really good chance the calf was either infected in the maternity pen at birth or fed dirty colostrum. It takes some time for the pathogens to grow and cause disease, so the younger a calf is when it becomes sick, the more likely it was infected on the day of birth.

Preventing calf scours through additives or antibiotics

It is pretty common to use antibiotics in early milk formulas to prevent or minimize calf scours in the first two weeks of life. This practice may be ending under the new VFD rule. Are you ready to feed calves without antibiotics? Using non-medicated products in the field has been the focus of many calf-raisers as they try to raise calves without antibiotics and to limit the use of antibiotics.

The original “additive” to cow milk was the transitional milk concept on days two to five, as the normally high levels of colostrum on day one slowly get diluted to whole milk. This happens over a few days and allows the nutritional and immune factors (often referred to as functional proteins) in the colostrum to continually bathe the intestinal tract as milk is consumed.

These proteins can have an immune benefit and may also help to reduce colonization of pathogens. Additives based on this functional protein concept have been found to be effective on the farm and are worth looking at.

Scours is not normal, but it is common. Take the time to increase calf immunity, reduce pathogen load with proper cleaning and feed a good diet to your young calves. If you do this, you will find that managing calf scours is not only possible but successful. PD

Stephen Hayes is a veterinary consultant with Day 1 Technology, based in Winona, Minnesota.

PHOTO 1: The above water-based joint is not going to be easily cleaned when used for milk without disassembly and manual cleaning.

PHOTO 2: The above milk-designed joint can be easily cleaned using a CIP system designed for milk.Photos courtesy of Stephen Hayes.

Stephen Hayes
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